U.S. defends detainee treatment, helicopter down

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Monday, January 21, 2002 - Web posted at 1:42:57 pm GMT

U.S. defends detainee treatment, helicopter down

WASHINGTON/KABUL - Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Sunday defended the United States' treatment of Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and a U.S. military helicopter crashed in northeastern Afghanistan, killing two Marines.

Hours before Rumsfeld spoke on the detainees, a U.S. Super Stallion helicopter, supplying forces in the hunt for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar, the fugitive Taliban leader, came down in rugged mountains after leaving Bagram air base north of the Afghan capital Kabul.

And in Tokyo, Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's interim president, issued a moving appeal for aid on the eve of an international conference during which he must outline a vision of how to rebuild his shattered country.

Reacting to European criticism the detainees from Afghanistan were being improperly treated at the isolated U.S. naval base in Cuba, Rumsfeld said it was unfair to suggest the "hard-core terrorists" were being handled inhumanely.

"Obviously anyone would be concerned if people were suggesting that treatment were not proper," Rumsfeld told reporters in Washington.

"The fact remains that the treatment is proper. There is no doubt in my mind that it is humane and appropriate and consistent with the Geneva Convention for the most part."

Britain said on Sunday it wanted an explanation from the United States about published photographs showing Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners at the naval base tightly manacled and kneeling behind wire fences.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said "prisoners, regardless of their technical status should be treated humanely and in accordance with customary international law."

Thirty four more Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners, some with battle wounds, arrived on Sunday at the base under high security. They were flown from a U.S. military base near Kandahar and brought the total number of detainees at the Guantanamo Bay facility to 144.

A four-person team from the International Committee of the Red Cross has been at the Guantanamo Bay base since Thursday to inspect the prison camp and interview detainees.

Called Camp X-Ray, the site holds prisoners in 6-foot by 8-foot (2 metre by 2.6 metre) enclosures with roofs and floors, but only chain-link walls.

Rumsfeld said the prisoners were "very tough, hard-core, well-trained terrorists" but they were getting excellent medical care and well as "culturally appropriate food" three times a day and were allowed to pray.

"They are being allowed to practice their religion, which is not something that they encouraged on the part of others," Rumsfeld said. "They are clothed cleanly and they are dry and safe."

Sunday's helicopter crash was the latest in a series involving U.S. military personnel since Washington launched it's military campaign in Afghanistan in October.

Witnesses said it went down in mountains shortly after leaving Bagram air base.

"We saw two helicopters in the sky. One was flying strangely and after a few seconds they both disappeared and we heard an explosion," one resident of the Bandi Ghazi area, in mountains to the southeast of Kabul, told Reuters.

Capt. Tom Bryant said the helicopter made a "hard landing" at around 8 a.m. (0330 GMT) and two of the seven Marines on board were killed and five injured.

Rumsfeld said in Washington early indications were that a mechanical problem was to blame for the crash.

"There are two dead and two critically wounded and all of them have now been removed to a hospital," he said.

Despite the setback, the global hunt for bin Laden and members of al Qaeda, blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed more than 3,000 people, spread further afield with the arrest of two men in Spain.

Bin Laden's former Afghan host, Taliban chief Mullah Omar, was moving from place to place, but was being hunted by tribal forces loyal to the interim government, the governor of Kandahar province, Gul Agha, told Reuters.

"He is still in Afghanistan," Agha said. "He is moving from place to place. When we catch up with him, he will be arrested."

The Taliban abandoned Kabul after intense U.S. bombing and ground attacks by Afghan opposition forces in November and retreated from their power base of Kandahar in early December.

As the hunt for Bin Laden and Mullah Omar went on, the New Yorker published an article saying that a number of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters had escaped the besieged Afghan city of Kunduz in November in a U.S. approved evacuation of Pakistani military officers and intelligence advisers who were supporting the Taliban, slipping aboard nighttime airlifts approved by the Bush administration to help Pakistan leader General Pervez Musharraf, a key U.S. ally, to avoid political disaster.

American and Pakistani officials have refused to confirm the report and on Sunday Rumsfeld denied it. Nampa-Reuters


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